«Training students is a form of activism»

She’s here to stir up the History Department. This semester, Debjani Bhattacharyya is taking up the new professorship «History of the Anthropocene», where she will teach social and economic history with a focus on the environment. etü met her for a chat about the difference between people and rocks, Big Oil’s wokewashing, and how Zoom has democratized teaching.

etü: Just a few days ago, you packed up your life in New York. One long plane journey later, we’re sitting in the student lounge Oase talking about this new chapter of your life. What excites you most about being in Zurich?

Debjani Bhattacharyya: I’ve always been impressed by the brilliance of Swiss students and am excited to see what this new field has to offer, it’s the new academic perspective here that excites me most: Environmental history is often taught separately from economic history. At the Research
Center for Economic and Social History, however, I can change this by bringing the two fields together. Moreover, I’m excited that this department has a «Digital History Lab»: Much of my work in the last couple of years was about melding digital history with visual, oral and pictorial material from the Global South, where non-traditional sources sit alongside written sources in the archives. This generates interesting questions about how to work with archives if there are few written sources, or what methods to use when dealing with non-written or even non-verbalized sources. I am looking forward to expanding this work here.

Your first lecture this semester is titled Nature Inc.: Environmental History of the Modern World, a broad overview about how imperial expansion and capitalism exploited nature and amplified our current environmental crisis. Have you already planned specific seminars?

One of the seminars I’m planning for the coming fall semester is going to be called Beyond Property and will take the shape of a writing seminar («Schreibübung»). The idea is to think about forms of living and non-living agents that became propertized over time. I want to begin by examining land settlement and the old agrarian history, and then zoom in to the molecular level and investigate how biotic and cell life got propertized. Another seminar I’m developing is a Master’s level methods course, which will be on the question of scale, where we will think through planetary and historical time. We will discuss questions which emerge from the Anthropocene: What do we do when human history is being confronted
with geological history? Do we just leave history out of the contemporary discussion or do we really think through the complexity?

«We are at a juncture where natural history
and human history have become inseparable.»

Do you want to break down the classical epochal division of historiography and open it up to account more for nature?

We must always be aware that our understanding of history began with the formation of nation states. But now that humans have become a decisive ecological factor – for instance through the extraction of raw materials or emissions – we are at a juncture where natural history and human history have become inseparable: If we think of humans as geological agents, then how do we differ between the history of a rock, which is part of natural history, and human history? People like Dipesh Chakrabarty have completely embraced this by saying: «There is no way to write social history without natural history because humans are not just social agents, they are natural agents, too». As we have seen in the last years, we even think that
a virus has agency, rocks have agency and hence, humans have, in some way, become like rocks. Therefore, we have to consider the challenges that have emerged in the Anthropocene and how we respond to it – so that geologists don’t dictate our future and so we, too, have a seat at the table (laughs).

What is the Anthropocene?

The concept was originally coined by geologists. They postulated a new ecological era, dating from the beginning of significant human impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems. As these long-lasting changes are man-made, they are interesting to historians. The concept of the Anthropocene was first introduced to history in 2009 by Dipesh Chakrabarty’s pivotal essay The Climate of History. With humans as a geological factor, fundamental assumptions of historiography are challenged. Regarding the relevance of the environmental crisis, the new Chair for the History of the Anthropocene certainly responds to the challenges of our time.

The climate crisis and its impact on the environment is a pressing political matter. It is also one of your main research topics; your upcoming book is titled Climate Futures’ Past: Law and Weather Knowledge in the Indian Ocean World. At the same time though, science denialism is gaining momentum and there is a demand for unbiased, unpolitical science. How should scientists approach this new challenge?

For one, I believe that we need to start putting more money into science communication because social scientists can contextualize numbers and data collected by natural scientists and translate these for the common public. But let me tell you about another thing which is happening: In the Global South, there is a whole other debate around climate change. What you see emerging in places like India and Brazil is a sort of fossil fuel fascism. When I look at who funds the Indian government, the major players are coal investors. I don’t know anymore if India is ruled by electoral democracy or by a bunch of corporations. The Indian government is pulling the brakes on decarbonizing, using very valid and justified postcolonial arguments to non-valid ends. This is not about climate denialism. Nobody in India is even denying climate change. Rather they use arguments about climate change and vulnerability (which are all true) to twist them for very different purposes. I am very careful when saying this because I want to write about it and prevent India from denying me entry to the country. Ultimately, that’s the work I can do in the class-

«Historians are people who keep the govern-
ment in check.»

So, do you see your teaching as a form of activism?

This is an interesting question because if you look at South Asia, where I come from, historians are considered anti-government: The post-independence history of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh has been marked by violence which historians have been very active in documenting and trying to understand. Therefore, I always thought of historians as people who keep the government in check. In India, there is a huge fight between the government and the historians. Half of the historians are in jail. People who are working on indigenous rights are getting imprisoned or denied entry, hence, they can’t do research. Therefore, I believe that training students is a form of activism, and training them to think critically is very important at this moment. I can’t become the leader of a political movement; I don’t know how to do that. But I do know how to create knowledge and I know that I need to make sure that it circulates.
When I was a student, there were lots of times I was part of student activism. But things do change when you become a professor, am I right? (laughs)

When you held your lecture before the appointment committee in October 2020 (as reported by etü), you mentioned that you enjoyed working with students of other disciplines. What is the value of an interdisciplinary approach when teaching?

When I taught at an undergraduate college in the US, it was often the case that students of environmental science, sociology and ecologic engineering got together in the classroom to discuss, each bringing in their own perspectives. Recently, I was reading a book on Anthropocene approaches and why it should not only be taught in an interdisciplinary way, but in a multidisciplinary way. Because whereas interdisciplinarity overlooks our differences and tries to find a common ground, a multidisciplinary approach teaches students to fight for their methods and work through a problem, instead of coming to an agreement. I always encourage students to debate because it makes them ask questions.

Like the rest of us, you have been stuck in your apartment for the past two years and probably had to do a lot of Zoom classes. Do you have any takeaways from this time?

Let me begin with a positive aspect, because I always get depressed when thinking of Zoom lessons (laughs). For someone like me, whose academic life takes place in the Global North, but whose intellectual milieu is also in the Global South, observing the effect of Zoom has been interesting. An example: One of my seminars in Pennsylvania, which would usually only draw in scholars from American universities, suddenly attracted students from Nepal or Ethiopia – students I wouldn’t have had the chance to talk to otherwise. In that way, Zoom is a very democratizing tool.

But as far as teaching goes, there is nothing that can replace the in-person connection. Teaching is a two-way street. Teachers are not automats where you press a button and knowledge comes out; teaching is a dialogue – it gets better when the students challenge you. Silence, for example, is a very important part of a classroom, and silence doesn’t work on Zoom. I’m looking forward to being in a room together again.


Debjani Bhattacharyya studied at the University of Jadavpur, India, and gained her PhD at Emory University (Atlanta). She was Associate Professor of History and Urban Studies at Drexel University (Pennsylvania), a junior fellow of the American Institute of India Studies and a former research fellow at the International Institute of Asian Studies, Leiden (Netherlands). She is the author of the book Empire and Ecology in the Bengal Delta: The Making of Calcutta. She took up her appointment as Professor of «History of
the Anthropocene» on February 1, 2022, succeeding Prof. Philipp Sarasin.